New weapons for Panama tribes in old fight to save forests

The Wounaan people are deploying drones and using GPS technology to get evidence of logging in their customary lands

An early morning view of the entrance to Platanares with a thatched hut hidden behind palm trees, as seen from the river Rio Platanares.
Kristen French

PLATANARES, Panama — Under the harsh light of a single bulb, with the jungle night dark behind him, Carlos Gomez held up a small, plastic globe and set it spinning. Thus began his first lesson in GPS, or global positioning system, to eight young Wounaan men in an open-air classroom in the Panamanian rain forest. 

The indigenous tribesmen had gathered in the village of Platanares in the Chiman district to learn to map illegal forest destruction on their customary land, among the most biodiverse rain forests on the planet.  Until recently, the forest housed thousands of coveted and protected rosewood trees, also known as oro verde, or green gold, for the exorbitant prices they fetched on the Chinese market. Today, the rosewoods are mostly gone, as are huge patches of forest burned down by ranchers and settlers. 

Over the next two days, the men would trek through knee-high streams, 10-foot grass and dense jungle that is home to howler monkeys, harpy eagles, agouti and venomous snakes. In the heart of the forest, they would practice putting GPS points into new cell phones, hiding motion-sensitive “camera traps” in the trees to snap pictures of loggers and ranchers and launching a brand-new helicopter drone to capture footage of the trees from above. 

The workshop, organized by the U.S. nonprofit the Rainforest Foundation last November, aimed to give the Wounaan new weapons in a 40-year fight for ownership of that land — a fight that recently claimed the life of their chief. 

“We can’t simply let this situation go on,” says Hermes Barrigon, the pastor of Platanares and brother-in-law to the deceased chief, as he sits in a hammock in his thatched-roof home one evening, small bats swooping and diving under the rafters. “If we do that, we will be left without any land. And we have taken care of our land.” 

Rainforest outside Platanares/Rio Hondo, district of Chiman, Panama, shot with a helicopter drone.
Tom Bewick / Rainforest Foundation

Since the 1980s, the Wounaan of Platanares and the neighboring village Rio Hondo have sought legal rights to this piece of mountainous jungle in the province of Panama, a short boat ride through mangrove swamps to the Atlantic Ocean. In 2011, they filed the paperwork required under new laws to claim a communal title to the land, a tract of 150 square kilometers that they depend on for hunting, water, small-scale agriculture and traditional crafts. That same year, the government agreed to stop granting squatter’s rights to land for which a legal title was already in process; squatters typically clear the land for cattle ranching or agriculture and invite loggers to cut down forest. 

But local authorities then began granting concessions to nonindigenous settlers and loggers who wanted a piece of the land and the precious hardwoods that grow on it. Exploding demand for rosewood from China had caused prices for some high-end varieties to jump as much as tenfold in 10 years, to up to $1.5 million per cubic meter in some markets. In Panama, where 26 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the minimum wage can be as little as $1.38 per hour,  finding a single tree was like discovering a pot of gold. 

The competing claims on the Wounaan forest led to conflict that turned deadly three years ago. Following months of increasingly aggressive confrontations, on March 30, 2012, the Wounaan went to investigate a logging site where they found workers on tractors cutting down rosewood trees. Gunshots were exchanged, leaving Platanares chief Aquilo Opua and a logger named Batista Ezekie dead. Though the media published news of the killings and an investigation was opened — with the chief’s body exhumed from his grave for an autopsy  — no charges were brought.

It was the most violent episode in a struggle that continues. Every year in the dry season, mid-December to mid-April , loggers creep into the forest, sometimes by cover of night, to chop down and haul out timber. Though the rosewoods in the Wounaan forests are mostly gone now — it can take decades to grow back — and Chinese demand collapsed last year,  other plentiful, unprotected and lucrative hardwoods, such as balsa, redwood and mahogany, still grow there. In the meantime, with the status of the Wounaan land title in limbo, settlers are slashing and burning dozens of acres each year to make way for cattle pasture.

The Wounaan want to convince local authorities, courts and the media that these invasions are occurring within territory to which they have legal claim so that it can be stopped. With the help of Carlos Gomez, a coordinator for the Rainforest Foundation from Guatemala, and Carlos Doviaza, a computer whiz from Panama City who belongs to the closely related Embera tribe, the Wounaan intend to use their GPS and drone data to fashion georeferenced maps of the forest destruction. They are hoping they can use these high-tech maps, as well as photographs of loggers and ranchers entering the forest caught on the camera traps, as hard evidence. 

“We need proof,” says Doviaza. 

Carlos Gomez, red hat, coordinator for the Rainforest foundation, and three of the workshop participants, entering a GPS point with a cell phone.
Kristen French

Panama has one of the most progressive systems of indigenous land protection anywhere in the Americas. In the 1980s, it began designating certain indigenous lands as federally recognized comarcas, areas with political and administrative autonomy. By 2000 , five comarcas for the country’s nine different indigenous groups had been established, encompassing 12 percent of the country’s land and 27 percent of national forests,  including a joint comarca for the Wounaan and Embera tribes.  The Wounaan, numbering around 7,000, make up just 2 percent of the Panamanian population.

But after 2000, the government stopped creating new comarcas, and many indigenous lands were left without any legal protection. Today, 25 Embera and Wounaan communities in the provinces of Panama and Darien have long-standing demands for legal recognition of collective lands, which altogether cover about 1 million acres, or 8 percent of the country . Over the past two decades, these areas have been increasingly invaded by nonindigenous groups who cut down the forest for timber or clear the land for cattle ranching or farming, leading to deforestation, contamination of the rivers and confrontations with the tribes that depend on the land.  

To address these conflicts, the Panamanian government wrote a number of laws and agreements, but then proceeded to mostly ignore them. In 2008, it created Law 72, which gives communities living outside the comarcas the right to request official recognition of their lands. But the process is complex — in part because much of the land occupied by indigenous communities overlaps with natural reserves and in part because nonindigenous settlers have made counterclaims to some of the land  — and the government has been slow to address requests. Despite many promises, only a handful of small titles have been processed in the eight years since Law 72 passed. Meanwhile, ANATI, a government agency created in 2010 to manage the titling process, was beset by repeated land-grabbing scandals involving the friends and families of politicians.

*The proposed Rio Hondo area includes protected fishing areas. Source: Global Environmental Change, 2014; Al Jazeera America reporting. “Forest protection and tenure status: the key role of indigenous peoples and protected areas in Panama,” Global Environmental Change 28 (2014) 205-215.

A criminal complaint filed by the Wounaan several months before their chief was killed named local authorities, among others, for supporting the theft of rosewood timber through the granting of “fraudulent” permits. One of the individuals named in that complaint, Alfredo Victor Perez, is currently a legislator for the Revolutionary Democratic Party in the district of Chepo, which neighbors the district where the Wounaan of Rio Hondo and Platanares live. Last year, the Supreme Court began investigating Perez on charges of customs fraud for falsifying permits for the illegal export of protected rosewood from Chepo to China and Taiwan.   

Diogracio Puchicama, who grew up in Platanares and is the spokesman for the Wounaan Congress for East Panama, says that after filing complaints about the illegal logging on Wounaan lands in 2012, he began to fear for his life. His little brother was approached at school by the son of a wealthy logger, who told him that he and his dad wanted Puchicama dead. Trucks began circling his home in Chepo at night. He stopped leaving the house, he says, and finally left the district to live in Panama City for three years. 

Burnt forest in the Platanares area.
Kristen French

Glenon Alvarez, the regional director for the environmental agency Miambiente in eastern Panama, is a broad-shouldered man with kind eyes and an honest face. One 97-degree afternoon immediately following the training in Platanares, Alvarez met with members of the Wounaan community and the Rainforest Foundation in his air-conditioned offices in Chepo. With a roomy couch in the center, flanked by several chairs covered in red velvet cushions, it looks like the kind of office that receives large groups of visitors. 

“I’ve been in this job for almost a year, and the experience has been quite difficult,” Alvarez tells the group, by way of an apology for the agency’s failure to resolve the problem in Platanares. “There was a lot of corruption in the past government, and Platanares has been one of the communities most afflicted by illegal activities.” Initially, he says, Miambiente officials believed that both the settlers and the indigenous groups were at fault for the conflicts over Rosewood logging. 

To eliminate departmental fraud, Alvarez fired a lot of people and made new hires, which slowed everything down. The overhaul reflects a larger change in Panama under the government of President Juan Carlos Varela, who was elected in May 2014 and has been trying to root out government corruption, especially flagrant under the prior administration of Ricardo Martinelli. Varela’s administration is also more conservationist than the last. 

There are many incentives for Panama to keep its rain forests intact. For one, they provide water for the Panama Canal, a 51-mile structure that is a critical conduit for international maritime trade and is responsible for about $2 billion in annual revenue for the country. It is also a draw for ecotourism, which Panama’s Food and Agriculture Organization predicts can bring at least $100 million in annual revenue to the country in the future. Most recently, the Paris climate accord endorsed a new U.N. mechanism in which wealthier nations will pay developing countries such as Panama to reduce forest destruction. Panama already has partnerships with the World Bank and the United Nations to reverse deforestation.

At the start of last year, the government launched a new initiative to monitor the jungles in the eastern, heavily forested provinces of Panama and Darien to reduce illegal logging and the transport of timber, as well as forest burning. As a result, the environmental authority of eastern Panama announced that it had had great success recovering illegally logged timber last year from logging yards along the Panamanian Highway, including almond, balsam, redwood and mahogany. It confiscated 2,885 cubic meters of wood from Chinese, Colombian, Panamanian and indigenous loggers who lacked the proper permits; the wood will be auctioned off at the end of February.

This year, the agency created a new program to prevent environmental crimes and capture environmental criminals, reduce timber trafficking and illegal logging, eliminate forest fires and protect water resources. Burning the forest is now prohibited and will be sanctioned with fines of up to $2,000. 

Alvarez says the data the Wounaan collect and the maps they make will help him do his job. He promises to send a team to Platanares to assess the situation in January. His objective for 2016 is to throw at least one person in jail for crimes against the environment. “If I put one person in jail, I promise you that all of this will stop.”

Carlos Doviaza, Embera indigenous Panamanian and community mapping specialist for the Rainforest Foundation and CONAPIP, National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples in Panama, photographing burnt forest outside of Platanares/Rio Hondo.
Kristen French

Panama is just one of a number of countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia that have been afflicted by the rosewood boom in China. From 2010 to 2013, imports of rosewood into China more than quadrupled to more than 1 million cubic meters, according to Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London. “While many source countries are striving to control the trade, they are struggling in the face of this large and lucrative business which is often facilitated by high-level corruption,” wrote Chatham House’s Alison Hoare in a report out last July.

In 2011, Panama placed rosewood on an endangered species list, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to prohibit the logging of live trees and limit use or sale of timber to trees that have fallen or were cut before the regulations were put into place. (Subsistence logging, the use of trees by residents of the forest to repair a home or create artisanal products, was still allowed.) And yet, the environmental authority seized 300,000 kilograms of rosewood in 2012, another 900,000 in 2013 and 4 million in 2014, according to the Panamanian press. Given the volume of wood that was being captured, at the end of 2014, Panama’s environmental authority banned the logging and sale of rosewood entirely, out of concern that the local rosewood species would become commercially extinct. 

Today, rosewood demand from China has collapsed, according to Chatham House data, perhaps due to the slowing of the Chinese economy last year. But the boom helped create a vast infrastructure for further illegal logging: The groups that profited from the rosewood now have the requisite equipment, have created roads into the jungle and are plugged into supply chains. And China remains the world’s largest importer of timber: Between 2001 and 2012, it accounted for more than half of the world’s tropical log imports. 

According to a report prepared by Panama’s environmental authority last year, approximately 45 percent of the wood extracted from the country’s forests is logged illegally. This includes balsa, almond, mahogany and rosewood, which is then exported to the U.S., Europe and Asia. Tom Bewick, program manager for the Rainforest Foundation, who has been working in indigenous communities in Panama for years, says the illegal loggers operating today are largely small armed groups of Panamanian or Colombian workers hired by Chinese companies, a “hillbilly jungle mafia, as dangerous as anyone anywhere.” But some of these illegal loggers may have received permits to log from previous administrations of the environmental authority, says Alvarez. “It’s ‘illegal’ in quotes,” he says. 

Carlos Gomez, Panama project coordinator for the Rainforest Foundation, practices flying the helicopter drone, with Tom Bewick, Rainforest Foundation program manager and Donald Negria, workshop participant from the Wounaan village of Aruza.
Kristen French

The Wounaan say the death of Aquilo Opua emboldened rather than intimidated them, despite the grief that it caused. They were rudderless for about a year, without any chief. “We began to understand that this fight is not one that can be won from one day to the next,” says the new chief, 35-year-old Jose Angel Puchicama, one afternoon, sitting in front of his home as children play with a soccer ball in the grass. Still, he worries about some in the community who are tired of waiting. He looks exhausted and his eyes are red. “There are people who don’t understand well and want violence,” he says. “As leaders, we tell the community, ‘We can’t win with violence. We have to find a dialogue with the government.’” 

The forest is both supermarket and livelihood for the Wounaan. It is their hunting ground — they kill wild turkey, agouti, deer and painted rabbit — and the source of the water they use for drinking, washing and bathing. Some trees provide the raw materials for artisanal crafts and ceremonial traditions. The baskets for which the Wounaan and Embera are famous are woven from the fibers of the nahuala plant and chunga palm, and some Wounaan families make a living by weaving; the highest quality baskets can sell for thousands of dollars each on the international collectors market.  A berry from a species of genip tree also provides the blue-black dye both the Wounaan and Embera have traditionally used to paint their bodies in geometric patterns, though these days that tends to be reserved for large celebrations. 

The jungle claimed by the tribe remains a wild place. When they trek in to take GPS data and shoot film with the drone, the men carry two machetes to whack through the densest fronds, grasses and branches. On one stretch of trail, the Wounaan encounter three small venomous snakes coiled in the mud that can kill with a single bite; they hack off the reptiles’ heads before they can strike. The thwack of the machetes, the squelch of wellingtons full of water and the slap of wet fronds and grasses in the mouth and face provide a rhythmic backdrop for the near-apocalyptic roars of howler monkeys that carry through forest. Even in the early morning hours in the shade, the heat is oppressive, bathing everyone in thick veil of sweat. 

On the final night of the workshop, the whole village of Platanares gathers in the classroom, including small children, elders and women in their traditional brightly colored flowered skirts, for the official delivery of the GPS devices, cell phones, computers and some notebooks to record their use. There are many speeches of thanks and applause. The community watches a series of silly, ghostly images of children approaching the camera traps in test shots, projected onto a blackboard covered over in paper. They see an elegant presentation detailing the results of the project: a sequence of maps and photographs. But the real test will come later, during the dry season that runs from mid-December to mid-April, when the loggers arrive. 

The group hides a camera trap in a tree.
Kristen French

Whereas environmental conservationists once clashed with human rights groups, favoring the creation of protected areas that pushed indigenous people out of their ancestral lands, global conservationism may be shifting. Recent studies suggest community tenure of rain forests by indigenous groups is one of the best ways to keep rain forests intact. 

According to a working paper from the World Resources Institute, published in November of last year, tenure security — or the certainty that a community’s land rights will be recognized and protected if challenged — is linked to benefits not just for the communities themselves, but for society at large. 

So-called tenure-secure community forests not only do a better job of protecting against deforestation, according to the study, but also promote other benefits such as climate-change mitigation, water regulation, habitat diversity and biodiversity, and the protection of local and regional climate systems. Another study, conducted in Panama in 2008, showed that indigenous communities do just as good a job of protecting against deforestation as do protected parks and conservations areas.

But it remains a complicated calculus for some conservationists. “The indigenous groups are demanding thousands of hectares outside of the comarcas,” writes Rita Spadafora, executive director of ANCON, a Panamanian nongovernment organization that promotes conservation in the country, in an email. “In some cases, these overlap with protected areas. It requires a lot of analysis.” The work of ANATI is delicate, she adds, and the agency should continue to take the time necessary to resolve historical conflicts. “We live in a very small country and we have to do the research so that these conflicts don’t escalate.” 

Panama’s environmental authority is especially interested in protecting the patch of forest that the Wounaan of Rio Hondo and Platanares seek legal claim to, because it is mountainous and serves as an important source of water for the whole region. Alavarez tells the Wounaan that the agency wants to include the land in an initiative called the Alianza por un Millón de Hectareas, or the Alliance for a Million Hectares, which aims to slow deforestation by replanting native tree species. 

In January, the start of the dry season, when loggers begin to come out in full force, Alvarez sent a team of people to Platanares for 15 days to assess the situation, as he had promised. The team toured the rain forest with the local Wounaan monitors and encountered hordes of loggers, according to Tom Bewick. None of them had permits. Some claimed they had been given permission by Wounaan villagers, but the Wounaan men were on the spot to deny these claims, says Bewick, who was not in the jungle itself at the time but was filled in by Diogracio Puchicama, who was. 

This time around, no one was fined or hauled off to jail, but the loggers were thrown out of the forest, and the environmental authority promised to return. The agency has already decided to purchase its own airplane drone and in April, together with the Rainforest Foundation and Panama’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Miambiente officials will return to Platanares to give it a test run. Airplane drones are sturdier and can fly further than the helicopters, recording more data and taking better photographs. 

In the meantime, the monitors in Platanares plan to keep up their own data collection. For the first time in a long time, the Wounaan are feeling cautiously optimistic, Bewick tells me. The government is keeping some of its promises. 

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